UEFA women's football development programme (WFDP) ambassador Steffi Jones was a high-profile guest at a keynote conference on the women's game in Northern Ireland.
The much-titled former German international, who took on her UEFA duties last month, attended a seminar organised by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Department in conjunction with the women's football unit at the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Northern Ireland Women's Football Association (NIWFA).
A day of motivation, inspiration and information centred on women's football, its impressive development in recent years and Northern Ireland's own unstinting efforts to bolster its activities in this area. UEFA has approved the IFA's own WFDP project – SCORE Pilot Project: Supporting Women and Girls Football – set up within a pan-European drive in which national associations are being helped by UEFA to realise their ambitions in the women's football sector.
Northern Ireland is seen as having encouraging potential: the IFA is currently drawing up a long-term strategy comprising, among other things, recruitment of players, referees, officials and coaches, raising club standards, educating coaches and improving national-team performances at youth and senior level.
The multifaceted SCORE project aims in particular to increase the capacity of women's football clubs. Fifty club volunteers will undertake coach education commensurate with their experience, and educational workshops will focus on matters such as nutrition for grassroots players.
Fifty clubs will also participate in a club development programme incorporating child protection, club administration and first aid, with each club given funds to hold coaching sessions in schools and community groups. The 50 clubs will also deliver two holiday camps a year and will endeavour to enter at least one girls' team in IFA small-sided leagues from March to June next year.
UEFA is giving fresh impetus to the evolution of women's football across Europe, having formulated a wide-ranging strategy for the female game. One of the key visions is that: "Opportunities should be provided to all girls who want to play football within their neighbourhood or village, regardless of skill or talent, offering them a safe environment in which to play to their own aspirations." Northern Ireland is one of many FAs that are working hard at the grassroots, with UEFA's help, to give girls the chance to play.
Northern Irish international Danielle McDowell is one such footballer who seized her opportunity. She told the seminar that as soon as she could walk, she wanted to play football and would carry a ball around with her in a plastic bag wherever she went. For her, there was no religious divide – she just wanted to play and share the game she loved.
Delegates also attended a variety of interactive informative workshops on the topics of women in leadership, barriers to participation/routes to inclusion, and PR marketing and media within women's football. The workshops were facilitated by the United States consul general to Belfast, Kamala Lakhdhir, the English Football Association's head of national game, Kelly Simmons, IFA women's domestic football manager, Sara Booth, and Rhoda Cassidy from Women's World United.
"The interactive nature of the workshops allowed not only for effective discussion and information distribution, but also for attendees to interact on a personal basis, creating new connections and links to support future ideas. There was a really positive atmosphere and determination throughout the day," said Lisa Rickett, IFA community relations officer.
Steffi Jones and NIWFA chairwoman Elaine Junk spoke passionately and realistically about the state of women's football and noted the low levels of females in strategic positions within the higher echelons of sport. Jones – now a tireless women's football ambassador after a brilliant playing career – emphasised the importance of continuing your involvement in sport beyond just playing, so that your vital knowledge isn't lost to those who follow.